As surprising as Bryce Harper's 2016 season has been, with his numbers falling off dramatically from one year ago when he won the NL MVP award, the current situation he finds himself in is a familiar one.
Harper just finished a year that did not live up to his standards. He was hampered at times by injuries, including one to his left thumb. The way he closed this year, with a so-so final month, leaves uncertainty for what to expect in the playoffs.
There are, one could argue, some parallels to the 2014 season when the Nats won their division without Harper at full strength and without him playing his best down the stretch. That October, he proceeded to catch fire against the Giants in the NLDS, hitting three homers in four games with 15 total bases in 17 at-bats.
Despite what has transpired over the last few months, Harper knows the postseason offers him a clean slate. Everything, as they say, starts at zero.
"Nothing matters for the season anymore," he said. "That's how it is. That's how the postseason works. It doesn't matter what you did during the season, what your numbers were or how you did. It doesn't matter if you had 20 wins or if you had five, or if you hit .220 or hit .350. The postseason is a different animal. It's a different place. It's a lot of fun to be a part of and I'm looking forward to getting back into it."
That is not to diminish what Harper has gone through this season, a year that saw his batting average drop to .243 from .330 the year before. His OPS fell nearly .300 points from 1.109 to .814.
After posting a 9.9 WAR in 2015, one of the best in recent baseball history, he topped out at 1.6 this year. That ranked sixth among just Nats position players. Rookie Trea Turner finished ahead of him and so did Danny Espinosa, who hit just .209.
Harper knows his production fell way short of where he hoped it would be, but is pleased with the end result.
"I think there's been some ups and downs, for sure. But as a team and as an organization, I think it's been great, for me to have a down year and for us to do what we did," he said.
"I'll take 24 homers and 86 RBI for a down year. I'll take that any day of the week. I'm just excited to get going and get to playing in the postseason. Hopefully I can keep stealing bags and playing good defense, hopefully mix a few homers in there and just have a good series."
Harper certainly knows what is required to make an impact in the playoffs. Back in 2012, when he was a rookie in his first postseason, he homered, tripled and doubled in the Nats' five-game series against the Cardinals.
But his role on the Nationals is now different than it was in 2012, and even in 2014. He is a centerpiece in their lineup. No longer is Harper an inexperienced player from which a big series would merely be a bonus. He is expected to do great things and lead the way for those who haven't been there before.
"I don't think you're ever going to know what it's going to be like until you play there. I've always just said that I've played in way bigger games in my life from when I was 10 years old until now. It's just the same game you've been playing your whole life," he said.
"It's a lot of fun. I love to play under the bright lights. I love being on primetime. I look forward to those games. I look forward to facing the best in baseball. It's something that I thrive on. It's something that I really enjoy. Seeing my family up in the stands, I really enjoy those moments with them."
Harper is also looking forward to what this Nationals playoff run could mean to the city of Washington. If they win the NLDS and advance just one round, they will go further than any other D.C. major sports team (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL) has since 1998, when the Capitals were swept in the Stanley Cup Finals. It has been 18 years. No other North American city with at least three major sports franchises has waited longer.
The Nationals will try to capture D.C.'s first world championship since the Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1992. That was 24 years ago. It's not quite the title drought the Cavaliers just broke for Cleveland, but that's a very long time.
Washington is starved for a deep playoff run and Harper wants it to be a collective effort as the Nationals try to deliver one.
"I hope everybody takes an Uber and doesn't take the train. Once the train leaves at 11:30, our stadium is empty. Hopefully that doesn't happen," he said, referring to the uncertainty of D.C. Metro staying open for late playoff games.
"But I think the way our fans react to the postseason, they've done a great job. I think as an organization we've done a great job to really connect with the fans. I know we're going to be sold out. I know that this place is excited.
"You have all winter long to watch the Redskins. You have all winter long to watch the Capitals. Let's have some fun and play these next three weeks out. Let's enjoy it and do it together. Not just the fans here, but this is for the fans up in Montreal, as well, who had the Expos. Hopefully we can do everything possible to win some ballgames and get to where we need to be."
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